Academic reading: help! Here’s some guidance that might help

So the new term is upon us and fresh faced undergraduate fill the campus.  There are some perennial questions that always come to the surface around now and many of them are about reading.  So for the benefit of my new Geography students here are a few observations which you may or may not find useful.

Listen to the introductions for University Challenge and the student will say ‘reading Biology, or reading Geology’ or at least they used to.  The point here is the word ‘reading’ – you read for your degree.  The lectures define the syllabus and provide core knowledge but above all else they scope the subject and its frontiers.  Frontiers and terrain that you are expected to explore through your own reading.

In a generation brought up with the internet and with everything online at your fingertips this is not as straight forward as it used to be 30 years ago when reading meant spending hours sitting in the basement of the library.  There is now a diversity of output (Fig. 1) where once there were simply printed journals and textbooks.  Since most academic material is now delivered online there is a blurring of boundaries.


Figure 1: Information sources.

A common question is: ‘material from a website is OK right, it’s no different from an e-journal or e-book is it?’  The answer off course is no, they are worlds apart!  An e-journal has been peer reviewed, a website has not.  Anyone can post what they like, as witnessed by this site, on a website accurate or not.  Figure 2 is my take on the history of journals which can help resolve some of these questions; it is also useful to understand the process of academic publishing and the role of peer review (Fig. 3).  It is peer review that provides the safeguard against ‘fake research’ although it is not without its dark-side.


Figure 2: My take on the history of the academic journal.


Figure 3: Summary of the academic peer review publishing system.  It is a bit like having your work marked by your peers; it is often a painful process!

We can look at the reading process in three steps: how do you surface material >> check its quality and reference management >> and actively read it?

Finding stuff to read

When I was a student back when the dinosaurs roamed free we were always, by the better lectures at least, given a print sheet of references to take to the library and read.  These days finding material is much easier, you can just go on line.  A lecturer may direct you to specific books and papers, but probably less so than in the past because it is so easy these days to find material.  There are specialist search engines and databases such as the Web of Knowledge and there are details and instructions on the Library web pages.  However in truth the best option is to do a simple Google Scholar search.  To be clear this is not your normal Google search engine, you will need to find it in the Google apps or search for it.  Once you have found it save it your favourites, it is in truth all you need in my opinion at least.  It surfaces academic papers and books and does so like a dream!  I use nothing else in my research unless I am on the quest for something very specialised.  Figure 4 show a typical search.  For finding the key papers fast and easily there is nothing like it and for Physical Geography it covers all the key subjects well.


Figure 4: Typical Google Scholar search.  Key words go in at the top, you can set the date range on the right and the availability of the work is listed on the right.  The double quotation marks brings out a popup with the citation.  

Quality and Reference Management

Having found your material the next thing is to think about quality.  Some good questions to ask of a source before you spend time reading are:

  • Where is the item published? Is it a textbook or research article?  Now textbooks are good in the fact that you get lots of information in one place and for developing core knowledge there is nothing better, but they are always out of date!  For some subjects this does not matter the information is timeless, but science is never static and if you want the latest information you need to seek out the original research (Fig. 5; Table 1).


Figure 5: Different lead times from research to publication.


Type of Publications Comment Quality
Journal paper/article

[Paper and e-journals]

Provided it is a reputable journal then peer reviewed is normally rigorous.  Check this Good editor and/or editorial board helps. Best source every time.  Some disciplines (e.g., archaeology) don’t always place their best stuff in journal papers – restrictions of length etc. *****
Conference volume or edited issue Peer review can be very variable and often more flex especially for the editors mates.  Editor dependent. Work is often under developed – saving the best for a paper.  More common in archaeology/anthropology. ***
Research monograph Common in archaeology were there is a lot of data to convey.  Quality depends on author and editor.  Peer review protocol more shadowy. ***
Readers and popular science The book once completed is usually reviewed by publisher – light touch.  It is also reviewed by community in published book reviews. Depends on the author, but bear in mind they are advancing a ‘thesis’ (idea) and may not be as objective as you might wish.

[Be very careful of ‘self-published’ works]

Textbooks The book once completed is usually reviewed by publisher – light touch.  It is also reviewed by community in published book reviews. Depends on the author, but bear in mind they are selecting information, not always representing the whole field.  Textbooks are always a few years out of date. **

Table 1: My personal assessment of quality of different types of source.  Not everyone will agree with this and it varies with discipline.  

  • When was the item published?  Now this is a tricky question.  In theory the more recent a paper the more up to date it should be; so should you only look at stuff published in the last few years?  The answer is no, there are many classic papers which can be anything from ten to hundred years old.  Yes its is often harder to get those papers digitally but that is not a reason for ignoring them!  The classics are often the best.  You just need to be aware of how how ideas may have changed.  Look at a couple of recent articles on a subject and if they all link back to one older piece then it is often worth giving it a read.
  • Is the journal peered reviewed?  On the journal’s home page there should be information about this, check that it has been, if it hasn’t treat with caution.  Books can be a bit of grey area, most textbooks undergo some review before publication but it in truth the rigour varies.  Be particularly careful of anything that is clearly self-published, by contrast large publishing houses have a reputation to maintain and are careful.  The impact factor of a journal is a crude measure how much research in the journal is cited.  The higher the value, and most journals have impact factors of <5, the more the research in the journal is being read and cited by others.  A journal without an impact factor is more suspect unless starting out and backed by a big publishing house.
  • Who is the editor or who is on the editorial board?  Are the editors and members of the editorial board established figures in the discipline, can you trace them back to solid academic institutions and profiles?
  • If the work has been published for a while you might like to check the articles metrics.  There are various metrics that you may look at but the simplest is the number of citation.  How many times has an academic who is not an author of the piece referenced the work in another paper?  The more citation the more impact the article has had; remember that if it was published just a few months ago the citations will always be low since it take time for people to read and cite a work.  The Altmetrics is another measure.  This is a measure of the media and public interest in article when published.  It is based on things like the number of downloads, press coverage, tweets and the like.  The only caution I would say is that bad or outrageous science can sometimes have high Altmetrics for the wrong reasons.
  • Where was it published?  There are a lot of new journals popping up at the moment with a move to Open Access publishing and in truth a lot of them are very poor.  A quick check on the age of a journal can really help here; has it being going for decades or not?
  • Who funded the work?  As you read a piece it is always a good idea to turn to the acknowledgements or declarations at the end of a paper to see in the authors declare any conflicts of interest and/or funding details.  A paper funded by the nuclear industry for example may not be that independent when critiquing that industry!  This is very true of papers in about drugs and medical devises.  You may also want to look carefully at the sample size and experimental design.  Just because a paper got published doesn’t mean that it is always free from flaws!

So you have found something to read, you have save the PDF or printed the paper what comes next.  Well managing your papers (Fig. 6) is a good housekeeping step and there are various bibliographic programmes some free, some not that can help you manage this stack of papers whether they be printed or saved to your hard drive.  There are various tables which compare different reference managers, here is an example.  If you are a Bournemouth student then Endnote is provided free, but what happens when you leave?  My advice is to go for something free at least to start with.  I use and personally recommend Mendeley, but you might find something better.  It creates reference lists, but for me the key is it stores PDFs and you can access your library via the web from anywhere.  If I am honest I am terrible at keeping it up to date and Figure 6 is a shot from my office!


Figure 6: Having a hard time finding the right paper?  May be time to go digital and use a reference manager?

Critical Reading

We are now at the final and most important task.  So you have found stuff, downloaded it, stored it nicely . . . . so you feel better, yes?  This is sometimes referred to as psychological value of unused information.  People buy self-help books, never read them, but feel better anyway!  It doesn’t quite work like that in this case, you need to read.

In truth most academic papers will put you to sleep if you try to read them end to end even if they are well written, so don’t try!  Academic reading is about the assimilation of information and its translation (i.e. engage with it) that information into something useful to you.


Figure 8: As the Borg would say assimilation is everything!

You need to be a critical reader and like all academic skills it has to be learnt.  Here are few observations that might help:

  • Reading critically does not, necessarily, mean being critical of what you read. It is not about identifying faults and flaws.
  • Critical reading means engaging in what you read by asking ‘what is the author trying to say?’ or ‘what is the main argument being presented?’
  • Critical reading involves presenting a reasoned argument that evaluates and analyses what you have read thereby advancing your understanding, not dismissing and therefore closing off learning.
  • Having a reading agenda helps (Table 2), what do you need?
    • General knowledge on a broad subject area
    • Improved understanding of a specific concept
    • Examples and illustrations of key points [e.g., Case Studies]
    • Information on a debate or controversy [e.g., Pros and cons]
    • Data on best practice?


Requirement Best sources?
1 General knowledge on a broad subject area Textbooks are good for this in combination with a reader.  Select the relevant chapter and skim read focusing on key sections/paragraphs.
2 Improved understanding of a specific concept Textbooks are best for this.  Select the relevant chapter or use the index and focus on key the section(s) or paragraphs.
3 Examples and illustrations of key points [e.g., Case Studies] Journal articles are best for this.  Examples in textbooks are often ‘tired’.  Look for new.
4 Information on a debate or controversy [e.g., Pros and cons] Journal articles from different sides of a debate; focus on the introduction and discussion sections which paraphrase a debate.  A good review article may really help.
5 Data on best practice Journal articles are best for this since they are most current.

Table 2: Different types of sources.

Reading should be a process of discovery, with one question leading to another.  Above all else reading should be an active process.  Producing a precise or summary of a paper and trying to fit it on no more than one piece of A4 is a good habit to form.  I suggest you read the post on writing a precise here.  I have one other tip which you might find useful.  It can be useful to keep your notes on journal papers separate from your lecture notes, although cross-referenced. Why?  Well it allows to see linkages beyond the structure of your lectures and can aid discovery and allows you to use of one bit of reading in multiple places.  For example, one case study using multiple techniques might be useful as an example in four or five places in your lecture notes.  Figure 9 gives one possible mode of working and is ideal for use with an electronic notebook like Evernote.


Figure 9: Using paper summaries in a flexible way like a stack of cards, ideal for use with something like Evernote or OneNote.

Finally remember it is always a great idea to reflect and think about what you read!


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